My dad owned Johnny Burnett Pools and Spas with a showroom and a handful of inground pools built on the property visible from I-40 West in North Little Rock, Ark. As soon as I was old enough, I worked for him. I worked at his business that summer of 1992 when he died and for the two previous summers and after school. It wasn’t just a part-time job. It was his way of keeping an eye on me and spending time with me and my younger brother, Jason. I made $4.30 an hour running errands, picking up lunch for the staff, checking on pool construction sites, answering phones and waiting on customers. I tested pool water samples then suggested chemicals for purchase. After hours, I mixed daddy a cocktail: Crown Royal and diet Coke with lots of ice.
Return from vacation
Monday, July 20, 1992, I arrived late to the office around 10 a.m. The reason I arrived late that day was because like most of my friends and peers in the South in 1992, I was preparing to go through sorority rush in the next few weeks. That morning on my way to work, I picked up my head shots from the professional photographer that daddy hired for the photos to submit with my application. My headshot would eventually be thrown up on overhead projectors in sorority chapter rooms across the University of Arkansas campus with details about my life that hundreds of 18- to 22-year-old Generation X girls would be judging. This was who I was back then as I prepared to embark on my new life as an “adult.” Wanting to fit in and belong. Wanting to follow in my mother’s footsteps and make lifelong friends in college and get married and have babies with all these friends and have my own lake house on the lake for my own family to enjoy. Wash, rinse and repeat the good things I learned from my mom and dad’s marriage was the plan.
I also stopped to pick up photos I’d had developed the day before from my vacation with my high school boyfriend, Tim, and his family. My excuse for tardiness rolled around in my mind as I perfected it on my drive to work, but I was relieved when daddy wasn’t at the office to hear it. He wasn’t there to see how the pictures turned out, and I so wanted to see the pride on his face. I put some wallet-size headshots on his desk for him to see when he got to work.
A man of routine, daddy normally arrived at the office very early, especially in the summertime when construction crews were busy. By my 10 a.m. arrival, people were already asking about him and whether I’d heard from him.
“Have you heard from your dad today, Heather?” one asked. “We can’t get in touch with him, and he’s not answering any of his phones.”
It was not like him to be unreachable. This was the new age of mobile phones, and daddy had had one installed in his car since 1985, which he transported as a bag phone when he was on the boat, plus the landlines at his home, the lakeside condo landlines and the phones at his liquor store, another business he had owned for over a decade.
“I don’t know where he is. I haven’t heard from him,” I said. It really didn’t seem like a big deal because daddy’s the boss and if he has shit to do, then he’s doing it.
I assumed he must be in Hot Springs meeting with his attorney about his divorce from Scharmel. They’d only been married around 70 days when daddy moved out of his house on Canal Pointe and filed for divorce. I know because I was there on June 22 and helped him move out.
Richard, one of the sales managers, was in charge that day in daddy’s absence while the other sales manager, Jim, vacationed in North Carolina. Aside from wondering about dad’s whereabouts, Richard told me his side of the story he witnessed in the Saturday aftermath from the “divorce party” Scharmel hosted at dad’s house on Friday, July 17. Mom already filled me in on the dramatic details when I got home from my vacation, and I had yet to hear it from dad’s mouth firsthand.
One thing daddy always did was treat his staff to lunch. Richard asked me to stop by dad’s house when I went to pick up lunch that day. It was no big deal, and the extra drive away from the office meant I was still getting paid but without having to sit through the drudgery of boring work in a pool store showroom. On the twenty-minute drive across the Arkansas River to 2014 Canal Pointe, I loaded Tesla’s Psychotic Supper into my factory-installed cassette player and sang “What You Give” at the top of my lungs, knowing I would not be able to unlock the door if he did not answer because I did not have a key.
When I lived with dad and it was “just us two,” he left me alone a lot. He had a life, a business, a girlfriend, a fast boat, a lakeside condo…he was a grown up in his 40s living his life. And now his teenage daughter was coming to live with him because he was the one who didn’t want her to continue attending a DoDDs school in England on a USAF base that housed missiles and was being barricaded for protection during the first Gulf War.
Over the next few months after I moved back to the States, I invited friends over all the time. I was alone, and sometimes it was all weekend. To be clear, my partying vices at this age revolved around alcohol, teenage sex and the occasional cigarette, but mostly it was just me and my girlfriends hanging out, chatting in the pool, taking turns laying in the tanning bed, having dance offs to En Vogue and singing all the words to Mariah Carey songs and Too $hort raps.
As daddy’s dream house inched toward completion in October 1991, he asked me to step into his office because he wanted to talk to me privately. With a flick, he closed the door using a switch mechanism he had installed under his desk, and I took a seat in a chair in front of him.
“Heather, I want you to know that I’m not giving you a key to the new house because you’re a party girl,” he said. “I don’t want you to throw parties at my house when I’m not there.”
“But daddy, I won’t do that,” I said, half believing myself. “I know how important this is to you, and besides I’ll be going to college next year anyway.”
“You’re still not getting a key. In fact, no one is,” he said.
And with that, the decision was made. A somewhat arbitrary decision at the time, yet meaningful in context between father and child. But this decision and my previous actions and rebellion, albeit PG-13 rated, would change my life. Or at least on the worst day of my life, having a reputation as a party girl would save me.
By the grace of God, being a party girl saved me that day. Being known to throw a party without adult supervision protected me. Because if I’d had a key to get in his house that day, I would have found his body, and this would be a different story. There is no telling how my life would have turned out. I would have lived the rest of my life with an image burned on my brain of finding him there and forever haunted by that experience.
So yes – I am OK that daddy didn’t trust me enough with a key to his house. Like, I am sooooooo ok with that. I’m OK with the fact that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, and like daddy, I love a good party. He used to say, “Are we having fun yet?” to the guests on his 30-foot cigarette boat he named Act ‘n Up Ag’n (the previous one was called Act ‘n Up). In fact, I embrace that part about me. If I was a different kind of person, then I might have jumped into the Arkansas River and let the current take me into the next dimension.
But I didn’t. I didn’t get in the house. I tried the front door and rang the doorbell. No one answered. Where the hell was he?